National Direct Support Professional Recognition Week is Sept. 11-17. It is designed to spotlight this dedicated workforce which supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in every setting, including homes, workplaces, schools, and communities. They are the backbone of the field.

As a 10th-grade dropout, Steven Natal never really gave education a chance. Even still, he knew that his part-time position at a fast-food restaurant wasn’t for him.

Today, thanks to AHRC New York City’s Advance & Earn program in Staten Island, Natal, 23, earned his GED and is now working as a direct support professional, helping students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the College of Staten Island.

I didn’t think this was the path I would take, but I can see myself working in the human services field,” Natal, a Staten Island resident, said. “I can see why it’s so fulfilling. Someone has a bit more trust and faith in you, and you are responsible for supporting that person.”

Support from Advance & Earn

The Advance & Earn employment and education program provides New York City youth, aged 16-24 who are out of school and need work, with paid learning opportunities, career training, and jobs. It receives funding from the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development. Through the 20-week fast-track to the GED, students have an opportunity to serve in internships in the disabilities field, food handling, Microsoft Office Suite, and/or retail certification. After earning his GED last December, Natal enrolled in the 20-week Direct Support Professional (DSP) Training Program, which included a paid internship in the field.

Today, Natal works as a student mentor at AHRC NYC’s Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program at CSI. He has helped other students work toward their GEDs, attend art and music classes with students and assists them in adjusting to college life.

Since 2020, nearly 100 students have enrolled in Advance & Earn’s DSP training. Some have been hired or worked as interns at AHRC NYC’s programs, including Camp Anne in the Berkshires and Katy Isaacson Elaine Gordon Lodge in the Catskills. The Advance & Earn students come with extensive training from AHRC NYC, the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals certification and Open Future Learning, an online training program for the field.

Because of the level of training they receive, they are more likely to move up fast,” said Yuliya Khripunkova, LMSW, Assistant Director of Special Projects & Quality Assurance with AHRC NYC’s Employment & Business Services’ Advance & Earn. “We navigate the complex world of disability services for them and want to place them in good programs where they treat staff well.”

We have people here to make sure that the students’ experience is successful,” said Jonathon Epstein, Advance & Earn Program Director, adding job developers, social workers, case managers and other professionals to support them.”

Steven works with students very well,” said Jessica Giorgio, Director of MRHEP at CSI. “He’s very flexible and he really fit in with the team from day one.”

“I Was Meant to Do More”

Natal excelled during his internship with MRHEP. “Halfway through we knew we wanted to hire him,” Giorgio said.

The internship gave me a chance to understand that I could learn anything with enough time,” Natal said. “Learning with others who are like me, showed me that I wasn’t alone. Going through my DSP certification showed me how necessary the people at AHRC NYC are.”

Natal recently helped Zamil Ango, 19, learn how to travel from his home to the college. “I’m watching the people we support believe in themselves a little bit more than they did before,” he said. Ango was nervous at first, fearing he might get on a wrong bus and get lost.  Ango was the first person Natal travel trained. Ango was successfully assessed and now travels to and from the campus alone. Natal shared the student’s pride, knowing it was a major step toward independence. Ango now takes a 6:40 a.m. bus to the Ferry, where he transfers to another bus which takes him to campus.

It feels great to be more independent,” Ango said. “When I passed, I was so excited. It feels awesome knowing that I can travel by myself.”

Antonio Virella, 22, of Staten Island, is another student who has benefitted from Steven’s support. “He is a great mentor for me,” Virella said. “He’s always there when I need him. He helps me with homework and if I miss class he takes notes for me. I like his teaching style and his PowerPoints.”

Natal and the other student mentors at MRHEP set the students up for success, but also recognize the social aspect of college. Making friends, joining clubs and in Ango’s case, a desire to be CSI’s mascot, Danny the Dolphin, is also important.

Maybe it’s not the most highly paid position in the world, but it’s important, “ Natal said. “It’s a very unique experience. I never could have imagined this happening in my life. I’m not sure any other job could match this level of fulfillment.”

Natal thinks back to his fast-food job. “I knew I was meant to do more,” he said.